Tuesday, November 04, 2008
Jheechin was in no mood of letting me go easily. Most nights these bars dont get more than one customer so they had to make the most of whatever whoever whichever opportunity comes. By now I was also in the mood of making the most of this visit (which was not planned if you remember). And this is where one gets stuck in his narrative. Should one write about what happened the way it happened or should one use some tricky words to make it sound great when in fact it wasn’t. In few words this is what happened. During the final play of the game I did end up in that corner with the sofa and curtains. I did buy jheechin the remaining two drinks. And there were indeed moments which I am at loss to describe. However after what seemed liked a really long time I was out of the bar. As I said earlier jheechin was in no mood to let me go easily. She rushed out of the bar as soon as I left and started walking along with me.
I opened my eyes to see gold colored mountains rising in front. It was early autumn and the tress has just started to change the colors and shed the leaves. It was beautiful. And the air was a lot cleaner as well. Another five minutes and I got the first glimpse of the great wall. Once we were parked I got three hours from my driver for conquering the wall.
Few days ago I happened to read an essay on the great wall of China. In his own very Kafka way he tells about his research into the history of the wall. It makes an interesting reading and infact adds to curiosity of watching the wonder. Over six centuries to build over 25 thousand miles of wall on top of the mountains over millions of lives as cost. It makes one wonder about the histories of all the wonders. After reaching the top of Eiffel tower I knew that I will never climb up again. After spending an hour on the wall I knew that but for the mountains I wont come up here again. Mountains are all that makes the wall worth a visit and of course the history. The history one can read anywhere but that one visit is still required to feed the curiosity.
Karnee was the first of the group to start a conversation. She could speak English pretty well. They were five in the group. Three of them sat on the opposite side on the cable car. The other two, a girl and a guy took the next cable car (“they are lovers” is what Karnee will tell me later when I ask why did not they come with us in the same cable car. Maybe they wanted some privacy or maybe they just didn’t want to sit on the same seat as some stranger I will never know). After a while I asked Karnee if they were afraid of me as they were three on one seat and I had the whole seat. They all said no and Karnee to prove her point jumped next to me. And after that for next one hour it was as if she forgot about her friends. We reached the base of the cable cars and we, me and Karnee, walked into the market.
Karnee is in 1st year of high school. There are three years in high school, she tells me. At the end of the three years is the big exam which decides what university or college one gets. She is already worried about the big exam as she wants to get into a good university so that she can travel out of China, most likely she wants to go Europe. Dreams are same all around the world it seems. Every time a non-Chinese guy, who are mostly western tourists, passes she shouts “how beautiful, how handsome”. According to her all Chinese have small eyes and are not as handsome. I agree but I did not say this to her. She likes big eyes and tall guys. She would like to make a boyfriend in Europe. She is very interested in the way I bargain with the shop owners. She thinks I am too good at it. Well I have learned the hard way. She is getting all the tips without spending anything. She is the only child of her parents, like most Chinese families. She gets 25 yuan per month from the government for being the only child, she tells me. There is a big crowd from her school today at the great wall. It’s a class trip. Everywhere we cross her class mates are surprised. “I will be a hero in my class”. Walking along with me can do that to someone, I never knew.
I (we, as jheechin is still tagging along) am walking back to the hotel. Out of no where a million girls have appeared are sitting outside all those bars. Jheechin was beside me trying to make the best use of her English. I was wondering how long she will tag along as I had stated clearly to her that I was not paying anymore. Maybe she had few charms still left to try. After clearing the bars and when we were away from the crowd she lost her patience and asked me for money or she will return. I said my byes and kept moving along.
If one thinks about the baby at the airport who kept playing hide and seek with me all the while we waited for the security check and kept laughing at an out of place bearded man, if one thinks about nearly thirty people (including both men and women) coming out laughing from men’s restroom when they had just blindly followed someone thinking this to be the way to immigration, when one thinks about clapping and cheering that little guy on the roller skates dodging the little paper cups, when one thinks about that little gift you left for Nana, when one think about all the people who wanted and took a picture with you there are chances that one finds some good around. For most part it is a loosing battle. But now the plane is landing, Beijing is behind, Shangai is yesterday, the wheels are touching the ground again, Delhi is now, Punjab is tomorrow, and there is still a long distance to go…
Coming to China most people want to see the great wall. I was no different. I spent one night in Beijing and left for Tanggu the next morning. My plan was to visit the wall on return journey. Manager in Tanggu while sending me to Shekou suggested going back through Hongkong, which is next door to Shekou. I nodded a hesitant approval but told him about my plan to visit the great wall as I left his room. “I am not sure if I will ever come back to China again”, I added. After an hour or so he called me back and called Nana, administrator in Beijing, to arrange for my travel from Shekou to Beijing, weekend in Beijing including the wall visit and then travel back to India. He even asked Nana to show me around the city. She was busy on Saturday, she said, but agreed to accompany me on Sunday.
I reached Beijing, from Delhi, around 5 in the evening. I was pretty tired from all the travel over last few days and strolled out of the hotel for a small walk before I had dinner and slept. The markets close by had few grocery shops, a fruit vendor, one pharmacy, few restaurants and very large number of massage parlors. I checked out the prices of the massages on all the boards and could not stop myself from entering one. I had been planning for a massage for a while but Aussie rates were never under few hundred dollars and I could never bring myself to massage away so much money. After struggling to convey my message at the reception for few minutes ‘the massage menu’ came to rescue and after wondering what kind of massage to go for I settled on 40 minutes oil massage. 100 yuan.
The place looked pretty sneaky. I mean it was some king of parlor in the basement and with pretty dark alleys. However, once I found there were no way of locking the doors of each room from inside I realized this place must be a massage parlor and not “massage parlor”. They had Chinese tea as complimentary. One look at it and I thought it was the some kind of oil. I just kept it on one side. The girl, masseuse, that walked in was pretty hot but very businesslike. I did have other thoughts for a while but once she got to work it was damn relaxing. After the massage I felt I could sleep forever. And I did nearly the same for next few days in the office. Chinese trip had begun well.
As I checked back in the same hotel on the last evening in Bejing, the receptionist handed me a letter from Nana. Before leaving Shekou I had called her to inform that I will only be staying for Saturday and leave in the evening. She had prepared a big plan for me to travel around arranged cars. She explained everything in the letter and also expressed how sorry she was that she could not take me around the city and asked if I could change plans and stay on till Sunday evening. I called her, thanked her for all the trouble she had taken for the arrangements, told her it was OK if she was not free, asked her if she lived close by hotel so that maybe we can meet for a coffee/dinner, which she did not, and she again asked me to change my plan to leave from Saturday to Sunday.
Sometimes the distance is irrelevant. Sometimes it does not matter who one is with, where one is or what one is doing. Sometimes one just did not care. But it’s been a long time for this sometime. A long time for those someones, a long time for those somewheres and a long time for those somethings. Now there is this feeling of being stretched in time, both inside and outside. There is this feeling at most of those somewheres, with most of the someones, most of the sometimes and during most of the somethings. The time one is alive, the place where one is, the people one is with and the things one do are becoming relevant. One thinks about all this now. One wonders if one can and if one should live.
I wanted to get back home as soon as possible. Back in the mid of air which sustains me for all those times when I am not there. A place where standing in the middle of smoke of burning fields of hay, after the crops have been harvested, there is no feeling of loss of air, the place where smoke is full of life. A place where traveling final five miles from the town to the village makes you five years younger.
Nana could not understand why I did not want to stay one more day. “I want to get back home asap” was all I could tell her. She was still singing the sorry song of not being able to show me around and I was still playing the chorus of it is OK and thanks for everything. Eventually with a high note of let me know if you need any help tomorrow and final fading beat of sure I will thankyou bye we finished our conversation.
After the eventful night at the hotel, I got up early, packed, had my breakfast, checked out and was on my way by 7:30 in the morning for the guided tour, in Chinese, of Beijing and the great wall. The driver as usual was 100% Chinese and nil% English. It was early morning and there was fog in the air. The air was relatively clean and one could catch few breaths of fresh air. We drove on nearly empty highways. Our first stop was Tianeman square. It was not a stop I found out later.
I had done some googling on the square last night. Just for general awareness as I was sure I will not have anyone for the insights into the structures and history and whatever little I had read in Wild Swans (courtesy Ravi) a year back I had totally forgotten. The ride to the square was through the heart of the city and for the first time I could see how massive the place was. As we approached the square I loosened the seat belt a bit and rolled down the window. On my right came what looked like the grave of Mao. I asked my driver if we could stop. Somehow he managed to convey the message no-parking-here-we-don’t-stop-here-we-just-take-a-round-and-we-keep-moving. I fumbled inside my bag, got my camera out and took a shot of what I thought was Mao’s grave. The driver had nearly brought the car to a standstill risking a ticket. We turned left and that’s when it became clear that there must be more than billion people here in China.
I used to wonder why there were few people with small bamboo sticks with a flag held high at various airports across China. Of course I could never read what was written on these flags language being Chinese. There was a sea of humans at the square and it was just eight in the morning. The square was big but having read that it was the largest square in the world I was a bit disappointed. I mean all that empty land next to my village could be a bigger square (with no walls and structures around of course and not much of bloodshed in history). Jokes apart the number of people in the square was huge. And all the groups were following a flag hanging at the top of a bamboo stick. Yes that’s what it was for. So that people don’t get lost in the sea of humans. I think another reason could be that they all looked so similar it would be hard to make which group one belongs to (I guess this is the problem with every community if you don’t belong to it).
He, my driver, was trying to convey some message. It was tough for him but he seemed a patient guy and kept trying calmly. After all his hand gestures and his entire English vocab failed to convey the message he fished into one of the boxes in the car cabinet and took out a small booklet which appeared like a bill book but which was infact a travel guide. It contained all the important words and sentences a tourist may need and was in few languages English and Chinese being two of these. He tried to find what he was looking for but could not and hence gave up the idea and kept driving. I picked the booklet, flicked through it and to my surprise found out plenty of helpful sentences. For the rest of the day I just pointed at the English sentence and the driver looked at the Chinese one and we could converse easily (except for once when I was trying to ask him to take me to some market like the market of exotic and he kept taking me to some weird crappy markets).
I asked my driver if we can visit the Olympic park (with the help of the booklet). From his facial expression I could make that he could. And after about 20 minutes of ride we were parked next to the bird’s nest. He pointed at his watch. I had 30 minutes. 2008 is the year to be in Beijing. Or it was, till the Olypmics. After watching all those games and fireworks on TV, the bird’s nest appeared as beautiful as you could imagine. The Olympic park was huge with the nest and the water cube at the heart of it. Chinese must have spent a fortune at this park but at 50 yuan per person and the monstrous crowd waiting early in the morning to enter the stadium it wont be long before the nest returns its cost. 30 minutes of Olympic glory and I was back in the car on my way to the wonder of the China, the only man made structure visible from moon as they say. It was two hour ride and it was not long before I dozed off.
Continued from Traveling Thoughts 1
We entered the bar. From outside it gave a very grim look. As if the place was engulfed with a lot of the sadness. The brightly glowing signboard did not make it less gloomy. There were similarly, similar to jheechin, dressed girls sitting outside. All equally young. All equally good looking. Inside it was dark. A strange kind of dark, I imagined. A small collection of very old and rarely used drinks was what gave that place a semblance to a bar. A very dusty looking refrigerator. Three four stools next to the bar table. In the far corner two small sofas which could be curtained of to make a small private section, if required, as I found out later. The place was not happy. It was a place where one could pretend to be happy but it was a grim, dull, loud and empty place. A place from where you get out with a relief, like being released from a dark cell of a prison.
So there I was, without the intentions of ever getting there. It was a strange walk. On the way there were two or three beggars asking for money. I ignored them, walked at a distance the moment I saw the begging bowl extended. The money which I paid for the drinks in the bar would have been better spent somewhere else. But it was an evening for fun not to find the good in me and the world. There was a game to be played. I found myself in the middle of three girls. Jheechin had removed the jacket she was wearing and was now clad in the bare minimum clothes. Tattoo on her lower back, a Scorpio trying to find its way down, was shining even in the relative dark. I found out as the game went on that the business model of the bar was manifold. They were pros so that was one source of income. Another thing was to earn by selling as many drinks as possible. Not as many as the customer wants to drink but as many as the customer can be made to pay for. Jheechin stood next to the stool I was sitting and did a little dance jig to some Chinese song being played. Another girl climbed on the stool behind and gave my shoulder a rub. I smiled and shifted myself slightly away. Since I was in a bar I was meant to have a drink, though jheechin on her way to bar has indicated her special likeness of me and of many of her ideas for the night and drinks were not a part of those plans. Not forgetting I was in China I bargained over the price of beer. It was a bit of overkill in bargain but it saved me five Yuan a drink.
It was the first move of many jheechin would make. She jumped onto my lap and with a wicked smile said, “Buy the girl drinks”. I gave her a while before pushing her back to her dance floor. “I only buy for her” I said pointing at jheechin and talking to bartender. There were lot of protests from all and after showing the contents of my wallet when the bartender told me the price of the drink she was already preparing herself to serve to all and after whatever calculation she did in her head and after she had offered me a 10 Yuan discount on her initial price I ended up buying four drinks, three for the girls and one for the bartender who was also a girl by the way. That left me with the money to buy two more drinks at the going rate. Those went to jheechin as the game was played.
The meeting with client has just finished. There were still nearly four hours before the flight back to Beijing and after taking leave from my colleague KC (was it Khoung Chang I wont be able to tell but I am glad most people in SLB use acronyms for there names here) I headed towards Bombay. I had seen it during my previous night’s walk. This is an official trip to China. I was to go offshore for work. I could not. Reason: not able to get required Chinese documents to go offshore on time. So I whiled away few days in Tanggu office while the other guys did the job hoping if they needed any help I can support on phone. The phone call never came. I was glad it didn’t. Only I know I suck at this part of my job, dealing with a crappy software and I have a big project due in few months on the same. How I will ever finish that only God knows? Even though there were many problems the client was a bit nasty and did not give much time to the guys to call back and discuss the situation. Eventually the manager here decided to make some use of me and sent me to Shekou to a client meeting which he himself was supposed to attend. It went well, I guess, and with a promise to the client that we, SLB, will look at the problem and get back to them with some solution I took my leave.
The first sip of the masala tea was like a sip of heaven. It has been more than a week since I had any tea and this cup promised to be a good one. Chinese tea isn’t what I can enjoy. If the cup of tea was anything to go by Bombay promised to be a good restaurant though I kept my fingers crossed. It was early for the usual lunch crowd, if there was any. I was the only customer and the manager spoke English so it did not take me long to start a conversation. I praised the tea though mentioned that in China it is very good but in India it will be just OK and gave her few tips to make the tea even better. On enquiring I found out that the chefs were Chinese. The manager tells me that these chefs have been taught by Indian chefs for over four years and because of Olympics the two of them could not renew their visas while in China and hence are in India right now sorting out their paperwork.
The interior of Bombay tries to give a feel of an Indian restaurant. The jhoomers on roof, the very Rajasthani style paintings on the walls, the brass glass on every table carrying napkins in place of lassi, and the menu card which promises everything you have been hungry for over a week. Trying to be a vegetarian in a place like China is tough but I think even Indian non-vegetarians are no better here. It is just not the way an Indian will eat his/her food or so I think. The music was not to my liking and the manager gets that sorted out. Chinese singers disappear and Dard-e-disco blares out of the speakers and dancing to the tunes, on the TV screen, is all muscles and six pack abs Shah Rukh. According to the manager he is very famous around here and also, what is the name of that girl, soooo bherrrryyyy buutifooool, she is trying to pluck the name out of her memory. She is gesturing at her eyes and making a big circle around her face with her hands. “Aishwarya Rai”, I help her. Yes, she is very very beautiful according to her. I tell her most of the Indians agree with her and none more than Abhishek Bachhan these days though this last bit I thought about now. Dard-e-disco is followed by ‘nagara baja’ and after few new numbers which I can’t associate with any of the movies I have seen, Aamir Khan makes an appearance with Subhan Allah. I am enjoying it much more than I have enjoyed Hindi music in any of the restaurants in India. Subhan Allah.
There comes the papad with hari chutni. I order veg-biryani. The manager brings another cup of tea. “This is free”. She seems to be in a good mood. When you are happy the others around and the world around attempt to make it better, sometimes. There is good around if we just not go looking for it. The biryani turns out to be pretty good. I finish it to the last grain of rice. Laze around for a while, make some idle conversation with the manager and after talking for a few minutes with an Indian family which has just walked into the restaurant, who invite me to join but which somehow I decline, and walk out to find the skies a little cloudy and a strong wind blowing.
During the build-up to Olympics I happened to watch many debates on Australian TV about Olympics being held in Beijing. There were many issues around at that time. The bigger issues are still there and the people who were suffering then are still suffering, whatever was wrong then is still wrong, but the media has moved on as the Olympics are part of a glorious chapter of history now. But during those discussions a point would always be raised about pollution in China and Beijing’s promise of delivering a green Olympics. There were people and few athletes reporting from Beijing that it is a little tough out there for athletes because of pollution. I always thought that must be just the kind of news reporting we have these days and it cannot be that bad.
Traveling in a car across various cities of China proved that those reporters were not making false claims. At certain times it got so bad on roads that I found it hard to breathe. A sense of suffocation, a feeling of your lungs revolting and a very strong smell of hydrocarbons. Those in favor of Beijing 2008 would say that China has made a big improvement in the years since being awarded the Olympics. I wonder what it was like before. The cities in China, especially Beijing, have been made green as I observed traveling around. But most of the trees around the cities though standing green were standing with supporting structures, telling the world that a big effort has been made and forests have been uprooted and re-rooted in the cities. The number of people who use bicycles in China is amazingly large. There are special lanes around the roads for cycle users. But for these cycle users I would have choked, I wonder.
There is a Manto story about a guy who used to listen to the sounds of the night. He lived in a part of town where the houses were very dense and roof of one house touched roofs of many other houses. Those were the times when there was no regular electricity supply to his town, Lahore if my memory serves. People used to sleep on the rooftops. And if any family had a young married couple they had the rights to the rooftop. This young man grew up listening to the sounds of the night, squeaks of the charpais, muted sighs and grunts of pleasure, the whispered conversations of the couples. He shared an unknown relation with all on the surrounding rooftops. And then one day he got married. As he stepped on the charpai on his wedding night for the first time he heard his bed squeak. From that moment on he was aware of the sound of his breath, the whispers created by his body movement. The moment he would want to make a move towards his newly wed he would grow still. He knew there were others listening. And he knew certain things are meant to be personnel and not shared across rooftops. This went on for few nights. The story ends with the guy going crazy or running away, I cant remember exactly.
Last night in China my hotel room was no better. Few nights in a room like this would definitely make me crazy. The guy on the room above was all ready to bring his bed crashing down with the roof. The room next to my head had the loudest screaming lady. It was late in the night night and I had to start early the next morning. I tried hard to shut out the sounds with the blanket. There would be a break but either or both sounds would return. I ended up banging on the wall to tell them there were people trying to sleep. There was hardly anything I could have done to the guy on the room above.
And sometimes one wonders if the world is just a place for all the means and ways of making the best out of every opportunity for you, a place where all the ways that move you forward are good, where the good does not have to be necessarily good. A place where everything should be measured against what is being achieved.
Walking out on the sidewalk someone hands you a card which offers you a special kind of service. The number of the special kind of bars is overwhelmingly large on the street for one to have an uneventful walk on this street in a foreign place. The temptations one can succumb to are manifold. And one wonders if it is good to give into certain desires, in fact all the desires. And one wonders what is good? Who judges it for you? You. Society. Who? One finds a mirror the best, and in a way the worst, of the judges.
Walking down further you dial the number on the card. Someone speaks in a language which you have been trying to learn a few words for the last few days. You cut the call laughing at the idea and partly at knowing the fact that it is next to impossible for you to go ahead with the idea. After a while you get a sms telling you the price for the service. Maybe they found someone who can speak English. It seems to be very expensive place. They are distributing cards so must be a high profile service. You play along. The fact is Chinese like to bargain. One is walking on a street in China. The price you say gets the reply “It is impossible”. That was the purpose of the low bid. Goal achieved. You smile and still keep walking. Every time one has tried to get a pro and somehow managed to fail in the attempt, one felt relieved in the failure and still one would attempt again. Wonder what it would be like if one succeeds. Later that night when you are fast asleep you get a call from the same number. It is more like early morning. They must have thought that any money is better than none. You turn on your side, look at the time, curse them, curse yourself for playing the game and keep sleeping. Of course next day before you return the phone card to office you will clear the messages and call logs (which incidentally one forgets). And still you walk, still you continue to figure the good. Inside. Outside. Still walking.
You cross the road. You find China more to your liking than Australia or western countries when it comes to traffic, the way they drive and especially the way they cross the roads. Being over billion people India and China at least have similar problems on the road. Crossing the road was an after thought. Plan was to go around the building and walk back. You saw two especially good looking girls cross the road. Instinct drove you and you cross the roads. You look at them or rather stare at them like an ogre and keep walking. You cross them. After a while you slow down and let them catch up. “Hello, good evening”. To your surprise one of them greets you in English. There are very few people in China who speak English and most of them are employed in good hotels for the benefit of the few traveling businessman and tourists. If it was not for the language China would be the superpower and not the US. Whatever you have seen so far suggest the same. The infrastructure in general, roads, airports, and buildings, everything suggests the same. Maybe you have been traveling along the cities, the roads, the airports etc. developed for the Olympics. Maybe not. But if rest of the China is half like whatever you have seen so far, US is lucky Chinese cannot handle English. India, you are lucky too. By the way did one mentioned that Chinese map also indicates the captured part from India in there territory like Pakistan does with POK/Azad Kashmir.
“Hullo there”, you reply. “Where you from”, she asks. “India.” “You are very handsome.” Both of them giggle as the one who speaks English throws this at you. That was surprising and much uncalled for. You later realize she must be saying this to every guy. That was part of her job. You reply generously, “You are very beautiful”. “Oooohh dhunkeeu.” Understanding Chinese English is one of the toughest parts of traveling in China. You have to concentrate real hard. She starts a conversation with you, her other friend who is absolutely gorgeous in every sense just speaks one or two words every now and then. She does not know English. From the clothes they are wearing they give an impression of being-on-the-road (Salman-Rushdie-style). “Where are you going”, you ask when the conversation falls into silence. “To work”, the English speaking one says. They have told you their names before. Did one say understanding Chinese English was difficult. One must be wrong. Remembering Chinese names tops that list. Try your luck at that. They all sound same to one. This has created few embarrassing situations for one already in past few days. After spending a whole day with people at office one would call Khoung – Jung, call Yung - Ling, and call Yang some thing else. One does not remember the name of the girls; they had a sound of jheechin and jhiuchiu or something similar. One uses sir, madam, hi, hello as names for most part.
And this is where in one’s story one stops addressing one as one.
“To the bar”, she elaborates “we work in bars.” From what people have told me here this much information is good enough to confirm that they are pros. They are extra friendly with me, probably looking for a potential customer on their way to the bar. This is the way used pretty often. I realize this later. We are at cross roads. They have to go separate ways. They work in different bars jheechin tells me. Now there was a situation I had never faced before. Choosing between two girls. They both obviously wanted the customer to come their way. Jhiuchiu was too good to be refused but it was jheechin’s English that made the decision. Spending whatever time I did in the bar trying to understand Chinese did not sound fun.
Over the last few days I have realized when it comes to bargaining Chinese have broken all limits of decency. The way bargaining works here has killed the meaning of bargaining. Indians think we are good at bargaining. No. Chinese put us to shame fair and square. The starting price of everything is 10 times the value if the buyer is Chinese. If the buyer is a foreigner and one who does not understand Chinese or do not have a Chinese friend along, God have mercy. Now from whatever bargaining we do in India we know that in most of the markets we bargain off 20-25% maximum from the starting price. Do this here and you are broke before you realize. I wonder what happen to people from west who have no bargaining in their blood.
Over all the trips abroad I had planned to get stuff for all who ask back home but generally avoid most of the time due to the price tags (actually the prices what the tags become after conversion into INR). So I thought China would be an ideal place to make amends. It is. Only if you can be shameless. Speak of anything, any brand and the local markets have exact duplicates of everything. You pick something. You ask the price. It never starts below few thousand yuan. And it never values more than a hundred. And you should never pay more than few hundreds. Here is how the bargaining for a Nokia mobile went. He starts 2200. We are dealing in yuans (some call it RMB, I do not know what it stands for). The interaction happens on a calculator. I have entered a market called ‘The market of exotic’. It is a wonder they got exotic right. It could very well be ‘The market of erotic’ if the painter had his way. English spellings, grammar rules, sentence construction hardly matters in China. http://www.langerie.cn/ is advertised on big banners across various highways, if not for the model on the signboard I would not have realized what the ad was for or maybe realized but with a small effort on the brain. ‘No photoing and videoing’ greets you at international airports. Just for your information, it is not related to what we are talking about here, they don’t have a ground floor. The receptionist told me IT office is on third floor. After climbing stairs to what I thought was third floor I realized I have climbed one too many.
I was instructed hard by colleagues at the office (there were two poor Indian souls working at the Schlumberger base in Tanggu, one very happy that he was getting transferred in a month and the other wondering when he will get his orders) that all shops will sell at one-tenth of what they ask. I type on the calculator 400 (remember we are buying a Nokia mobile). He shakes his head in wonder. As if he has never been so amazed in his entire life. As if I have told him the biggest joke ever. “Nho nho nho” he exclaims. “Nhokhia N95 bbery good. Thoo betteries. Bberryyyyy guuud.” He shows me the memory card, 256MB it says. I shake my head and point at the calculator. He thinks for a while and types 2150. “bhesht deal.”
The shops in ‘The market of exotic’ are about two meter wide open kiosks arranged in parallel rows. Each row sells one thing. Watches in one row. Mobiles in another. Mp3 mp4 players in one and all kind of imaginable electronics and leather stuff in others. Its closing time nearly and usual crowd has left the market. Other shop owners are slowly closing their shops and a small crowd of shop owners build around the guy I am dealing with. I give in a bit. 450 I type. An Indian trying to match a Chinese. I cannot win this match, I know. My 400 starting point is higher than what this guy would have sold the mobile for. Conventional wisdom said start around 200. I couldn’t. I thought of the number but was too embarrassed to say that. Still I fight. I turn the calculator to the shop owner. He shakes his head even more. As if I have actually reduced the bid. I realized after two three shopping stints that all the shopkeepers play as one. It is the way they overwhelm a novice like me. They form a team that works together with expressions, comments and mostly shake of heads. And if the customer is someone who does not understand Chinese, do they have a blast. Everybody shouts and the commentary is relayed across the entire row of shops and everyone is participating in the deal. It is like a ritual to them. The ways of bargaining at its best. Though they have jumped in the skies and left the bar to be gained in bargaining way below is what I understand. But they are oblivious to it and enjoy every bit of it. And with them I am having fun as well.
The shop owner I am dealing with consults a lady who looks like his mother and very bravely moves to 1800. I type 500. 1700. 550. 1600. 600. It is like a never ending battle. If I was in an Indian market it would be one or two deals and either I buy or the shopkeeper throws me out. Here the tempo and interest are still building. Chinese are the hardest working people is what I had experienced in whatever interaction I had with them. They for sure can persevere infinitely to achieve any end as was obvious in the bargain.
After few days it became very clear to me that most of the markets here do not have a fixed price and irrespective of the kind of deal if you don’t bargain to your wits end you lose. I learnt my lessons the hard way. I think after paying about 2000 yuan for the stuff I could have bought with 1000 very easily and that too after all those bargaining skills acquired over the years. Didn’t I say Indians are lucky that Britishers gave us English?
After a brief pause in our ever so slowly converging price curves the guy typed 1500. “bhesht price” he insisted. By now I have realized that I have already given in too much. I typed in 600 again and made a moving gesture. This or I leave, I meant. “Nho nho.” The group expressed a collective shock as if I had said something unthought-of. They were playing well, but I was determined not to let this game go their way. Someone back home has been insisting on a mobile for a long time and I did want to get him this one. So I took one step back after taking two away.
To be fair this is the fate of a tourist in most of the places, especially Asia. India itself is a nightmare for foreigners. Prices shoot up from INR 5 to INR 500 the moment they smell a foreigner. This was no different. It was usual. But the Chinese do it their special way. The guy realized that he was about to lose the deal. He came down to 1000. 600 I stood firm. 800. Very shaky but 600 I stayed on. 700. I was sweating despite a comfortable 15-20 degreeC and a nice wind. I knew I had the guy. I took a deep breath. 600 I confirmed once again. Now the group broke into a discussion and most of them started leaving, waiving arms and gesturing. This is their way of recognizing that they have got the best price from the customer and the group cannot help any further. Now it is upto the owner to sell if he wants to. They have played their part.
It’s the good and the bad that plays its part here. The bad in us, the buyer, and them, the sellers, not here but everywhere, but also here right in the middle of so acclaimed non-capitalist world. The bad trying to rip each other as much as possible. Trying to make or save your living as much as possible. The good in world keeping this “bad transaction” disguised in the invisible cloak of fun.
He consulted his mother, probably his mother, again. 605 he gave. Pointing at 5 and gesturing with his hands that that’s what he is making as living. I smiled. I wanted to give him that extra 5 but there was still some bargaining to be done and I was just learning the Chinese way of doing it. You never give away 1 yuan if you don’t have to (though even after the lesson learned I got ripped every time I shopped). I typed 603. Now he smiled and gave me a helpless look. I changed my mind and said ok and typed 605. I paid him. He did not take the five. He returned it. I insisted. He insisted back. The good was being given a chance after all the bad. I paid 600, put the five back in my pocket, packed my shopping and moved away. “Shee shee nee”, I said. “Thank you.” One of the four Chinese words I learned in the week.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
I had happyly (each time MS Word changes it back to happily (auto spell check or something; by the way correct spell options provided by Word for Shyamala are Shalala and Shamble) but since ‘In the pursuit of happyness’ I try to use ‘y’) landed in KKD. There was a need to get a new phone number. After first day in the base, our offices are mostly known as bases not that we are military, during which I got the letter from the company guy for address proof I headed out to get a new phone number. I had used Airtel at Pune, Hutch (now Vodafone) at Delhi and to be fair to the three major service providers in India at the time I had a plan of getting Idea number at KKD.
I was staying at Cozy Hotel which by the way is anything but cozy. I did not need to go far that day as Idea shop was nearby. After the usual enquiries I had a new phone number. “It will be activated by tomorrow afternoon” said the lady at the counter. KKD is in Andhra Pradesh and is a small coastal town. I had not seen many girls out of homes, in the market and who all were out were not very good looking, in the way a north Indian perceives good looking to be. This was the first girl who came close to those scales of perception and she stayed the only one for a long time. True, KKD is not a good place for checking out girls.
After another day at work and after trying my phone for nth time I was back at the Idea shop. “It is not working”. She called up someone who in turn called up someone and with a promise of another ‘Sir, tomorrow afternoon’ I was back in my very non-cozy room surfing all possible kind of Telugu channels in the world in an attempt to find one which I could understand. I guess that was the first day I watched f-TV for a long time. You do not need to understand the language for watching certain channels.
By next evening I had lost my cool and was ready to throw the idea of using Idea. She gave me that apologetic, non-welcoming smile as I showed my face in the shop for the third consecutive evening. But this time I was not going to leave the shop with tomorrow afternoon’s promise. Hence, she was made to work. After about an hour of calls she had my phone working. “Thank you”, I said and somehow miraculously managed, “what’s your good name, please?” “Shyamala”, she replied. That one chat with Shyamali Shah came handy, I guess too handy. “That means beautiful”. I have never known how to talk with a lady; even now I can make any situation awkward by being very obvious. She smiled and we said bye to each other. I thanked her and was out of the office in a world where I was connected with an ‘Idea’. An ‘Idea’ that can change a life. It rarely does.
After few days in Cozy I moved to the new staff house. There was a park close by with a small water pool, we preferred to call a lake, in the center and a tiled walking track and gravel running track around. I decided to walk away few pounds from the body. Every evening I would go for a walk, some time a run at the park. Some days I would have of company of either Tony or Gordon (before Xanadu came to KKD and became a permanent partner in the weight loosing mission which actually ended prematurely and unsuccessfully). One day while walking around the lake I saw a familiar face. It was nearly 3 months since I have seen the Idea lady, the day my phone finally started working. Like guys do, I pointed out the lady to Gordon, who was walking with me that day, and told her where I had seen her. We were walking in opposite direction of her. He is Scottish and probably did not realized that he was in quite a remote part of India when he suggested, “Go talk to her”. I conveyed my feelings with a shake of head. Probably the message was not conveyed or probably he choose to ignore is not clear to me. We continued our walk. Another round around the lake and we were about to cross her again when suddenly Gordon stopped right in front of her. And believe me he is quite a heavy guy and can block anyone’s way easily. I had no option. “Hi Shyamala” I blurted and it is the only part of what I said that evening that I remember. She said few things but the only part I remember clearly is “I am here with my parents. They are walking a little behind me”. By this time her parents must have covered the distance as she suddenly walked away.
I went to the lake garden many times after that over next year or so I was in KKD. She stopped coming or changed her time. Either way I did not see her again at the lake garden again.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
I do not remember wishing you a birthday wish all the time we were together. One of mine is close to yours (it still is a confusion that which is the correct date, mother keeps on changing her memory every year to suit what kind of person I should be, whether born in katte or the lunar month before that and many other reasons). VOLVOVIRGO did convey the message very loud and clear but I was not the kind of person who remembered dob’s easily. Maybe I did wish you sometime. How does that matter anyways?
But now I do remember and I guess many people do. Some remember the date all the while others are helped by orkut. Strange isn’t it. You still live on in orkut. Your email ids I guess must have been stopped by various providers for no activity over two years but junta keeps your orkut profile alive. Some send those scraps which go to everyone’s account and hence you also get them, some remember you the day you were born, some the day you went away and there are some who remember you in between when something reminds them of you. But for time being you are alive in many hearts and very alive in orkut. By the way dude, uncle aunty did not like your “About me” from the profile. I wish that your account stays forever, that orkut does not delete it. At least there would be something to remind people of you when the memories start failing us. Every Sept 10 there will be "you" under birthday’s for all that log-on.
I wasn’t checking out orkut today, though. It is blocked here offshore for some reason. Something else reminded me of you today and then I remembered its 10th Sept. Your birthday. Here is wishing you a very fantastic of the birthdays.
Wednesday, September 03, 2008
Today I was not on any Bombay road or beach or lake. It was a senior colleague’s home in Australia. The gathering was small, no bands or drums and neither the God was to be submerged in the water. It is a tedious process getting permission from the authorities here for a procession and nearly impossible to submerge a God in the water. They don’t believe that God’s can cure the damage done to the environment by submerging a God in the water. A small gathering was allowed was a surprise in itself.
Ganpati Bappa was decorated with the same zeal and devotion as any on those Bombay roads. The prayers were being sung, occasionally with the helps of booklets. I could catch few words every now and then but mostly I contributed to the music with the clapping. A kid walked back and started playing with the cushions on the sofa next to the wall I was leaning against. Ganpati Bappa was himself a very notorious child (little bit of what I have heard about the history helps every now and then) and I thought why not play with the God in his best avatar, a child. I got myself busy with gathering all the cushions for the child. There were seven in total after cleaning all the chairs around. The kid had a little hesitation believing that I wanted to play with him and so was slightly cautious at the start, but after few of my attempts to help him with whatever he wanted to achieve he involved me in his games happily. I do have a way with kids (within an hour there would be 10 of them running wild around me). He found a ball and we were jumping the ball up and down the stairs of the cushions. Now he wanted to hide under the cushions. He lay very still when I had completely covered him. His little brother was watching all the action on the sofa from his father’s shoulder. He freed himself from his father’s hold, walked close to the sofa, and very carefully removed the cushions starting from the feet to the head, uncovering his hidden brother. He too wanted to hide under the cushions. Their father saw this. End of my game with the Gods.
The prayers were over by this time and it was time to eat the prasad “blessed food”. After having my share of it, which by the way was too little for a very delicious combination of items I was on my way to find little M and play with her. It took a lot of persuasion on my part that I have something for her and only after the chocolate was in her hands did she believe me. Suddenly many kids came into the room and I was playing footrace with them. You have to touch a person’s feet with yours and then that person runs and tries to touch someone else’s. It was fun. The kids were having a blast and I was out of my breath after few minutes. Where do we get this energy when we are young? We are tireless in those carefree years. Slowly the parents started leaving and hence the kids started leaving too. I would be the last one standing if the players only left with the parents and I would be standing there for really long if I waited for mine. I called the game off and the kids amid minor protests ran away to find someone else to play with or find some other game.
Time to leave. Good byes to the hosts, good byes to the kids. While waiting for my company I talked with another little girl who called herself “the angriest tiger” followed with a cute growl and pawing motion of the fingers. She was wearing a bindi but maintained that it was not a bindi but a dot made with her mother’s eyeliner. When addressed as a kid, she protested that she is a child not a kid. According to her and her friend supporting her on the issue a kid is only a child of a goat. I did not argue. My English was always poor.
PS: On the walk back I was told a secret. It is really not the kind of thing which one should keep as a secret. How many things we have in life to be happy about? Still I will honor the pact and will keep it as a secret till it’s no more. I will lose this memory for the time being. Will go finding it later.
Short-lived, here today and gone tomorrow.
It reminds me of Ugly. I try to shake the thought away. I look at the date of the AWAD email. Its 15th of August. I am thinking I should have checked my email earlier and read this. Maybe I would have felt something was about to happen, maybe I was about to see the usage of the word in the real world. Then it comes to, it is 15th of august 2008. It has been two years. Reading the email on time would not have changed anything that happened. The email is two years late. I wish I could be mad at Anu Garg for being two years too late.
As if he knew someone was going to blame him. He has answered the accusation in the same entry. A THOUGHT FOR TODAY: The conscience of the world is so guilty…. Yes, it is the guilty conscience that keeps me reminding of the incident but there isn’t much that I can do to wash away this guilt. I think it is for this reason I have started looking further back in the time to memories that are pleasant that do not remind me of the things I want to forget. The events that I know changed me a little, may be more, but the events that changed the lives of many around me and in worse ways and at some level I was to blame for those happenings. These are the events I try to forget, to run away from. I could have affected the events, if not fully, in certain small significant ways. Who knows what could have transpired after, but anything would have been better than what it is today. May be I am just being a fanatic and thinking it all wrong but I guess the heaviness in the heart says that it must have been better, somewhat better, but for me.
I try to think of the times I was young, just to keep away from those significant events, but every time I try I fail.
It was after the call from his cousin S and when everyone had rushed on bikes to the hospital. There were six of us with two bikes. With some apprehension we could decide on the second driver that night. I rode the bike as fast as I could, hoping against hope that what she has just said was not true. I knew the route Ugly would have taken for home. We got out of the Shushant Lok, turned right and started towards the Metro Mall. The road was pitch dark. I always used to slow down on this part of the road but today I could not. Even in the dark we, against our wishes and fighting our fears, could make out the white which we did not want to. The car has been moved and was parked on the side of the road. The front right was all crushed. At the first glance all were aware that it was hard to survive that accident if you were in the driver’s seat. We were all scared to speak up this at the moment. Somehow without a word being spoken we moved on further to find the hospital where they had taken Ugly. Every body had a general idea of the hospital’s direction. I do not remember who was guiding me but after five minutes of most difficult driving I had ever done we reached the hospital. I do not remember the name of the hospital. It was named after someone is all I have remembrance of. We ran in as fast as we could. Running fast still in hope of holding his spirit back, preventing it from departing. It was too late.
I remember staying awake all night on many occasions. However, I had never stood a guard of the dead before. A dead friend. We were all there outside the hospital. The hospital authorities wanted to get rid of the body. Someone argued and somehow managed to keep the body there. Ice blocks were arranged to preserve the body. Preserve it so that parents can find there dead son in an unspoiled condition. Relatives were informed, friends were called. Many came, saw, some mourned, some were silent, some stayed, and some went back. Everyone had an opinion, everyone had a different observation of the dead, everyone had a new way to explain the injuries, everyone had the same questions for us (who were with him the last), we had no answers for anyone, everyone had a judgment to pass, an accusation to make, a sympathy to give and some of them had a tear to shed.
Sometime during the vigil I remembered calling Saurabh. Me and Saurabh were with Ugly at his last meal. Ugly has called him and said that he was bringing a present. I was wondering what is going on when he rang the door bell and hid behind the wall. Only when Saurabh said that this is the gift, pointing at me, I realized what Ugly was upto. It was a long time since I had last met Saurabh. It was to be the last gift of his life. Saurabh was as shocked on hearing what I had to say as every friend will be in coming few days. But he was more composed when he arrived. He knew better about what was to be said and what was to be done. I think his presence there was a comfort, at least for me.
At some point in the night V arrived at hospital. She did not have the courage to go and have a look at Ugly. “No. Not him. Not in a road accident. He was such a safe driver.” She refused to believe he was gone. Probably the best way to console yourself. Deny the dead the right to be. A was trying to console her as best as he could. I thought of saying something to her but even in death propriety demanded not to say something to a girl I had never met before. In the days that followed I remember wishing her the best for the future.
We kept the vigil whole night and most of the next day. Ugly’s parents were in Shimla when the accident happened and they reached Gurgaon late in the afternoon. Whole day we stood there. Some went back for a while to do whatever they had to. Most of us just stood there. I went in the room where they had kept Ugly one or two times. To see how he was doing. To give him company before he was turned into ashes and dust. That night he looked beautiful. More beautiful then he ever looked before. He had a radiance, a serene glow about his face.
Sometime before his parents arrived I felt water in my eyes. I had held on for a long time. There were many who had broken at the sight of his dead body and there are many who held on during everything. I moved away from the crowd and in the corner of the road looked up and let the tears fall. I hated God at that moment but asked Him to keep Ugly well.
It has been over two years now. Every now and then the memories come back. Things would have been different if that night had been different but that’s the way life is. Vogacious. Ephemeral. What’s left behind is memories. Thanks Anu. For the new word, for the old memories.
I do not know how it happens but we do not remember everything that has happened to us. Certain incidents stay with us and most of it is lost. There are people who pen down there memories, people who write journals of everyday life and have their memories tucked away safely in nice leather bounded books to refer to whenever they feel like. Some are even lucky, like Dumbledore, they have pensieve to save their thoughts in and look at them whenever they wish. Fancy, not even need to write them. Isn’t it fun being a fictional character with all the mysterious powers.
But there are most of us who don’t pen down our lives in journals and live on what stays with us. And life moves on. Why would someone go looking for memories? Go finding memories. I have stumbled on to write something many times and each time I have this memory that I end up writing about. However, I wondered what all I remember and how far back can I trace my existence to. Hence the quest for finding memories. Just another whim. I get few every now and then. Let’s see how long can I survive this one and save it from becoming another memory. Even if doesn’t survive, next time I will have another memory to write about. Half glass full, that’s the way they taught us for SSB, the way I am yet to learn.
Where does one start? The very beginning. From the conception. That’s kind of tough on your memories. I don’t recollect anything from my own memory of first few years of my life. I have been told of certain incidents but that becomes part of memories of the time I was told about them.
If I make a timeline of memories there will be few particular periods to divide it on. First phase will be before I joined Sanink School, then 7 years at SSK, a year in chadigarh , four years in college and subsequently three jobs bringing me to the present. All have a different set of stories, a different flavor of memories associated. Most of what happened in the later stages is clear in the web of memories. What is very hazy is all that happened in the first eleven years of the life. One remembers many incidents but there isn’t a sequence which can be associated with these. Somewhere in those years lies the secret to where one is heading to, if there is somewhere one is meant to end up.
Ruskin bond remembers his early years very well. He has his grandfather’s tales, his father’s anecdotes, the world’s wars, a country’s fight for independence and many incidents that remind him of all these years, reminds him of all the details. He has a wall as his ally, the wall on which he now sits and thinks about and later on write. I have not found a wall still but I try to think and I have not found anything still but the quest for the end, the quest to lead oneself somewhere is on.
The earliest I remember is somewhere when I was around 6-7 years. It’s the 88 floods in Punjab and events just before and around it. In fact most of my initial memories are built around the rides to the school in the town and TV. Yes, television. However, if one works really hard, one can come out with many things from that time. We did not own a TV for a long time, till dad got the Canon (smallest possible black and white screen, what was it like 10”). The first TV in the village was probably at the neighbors, at the least the first I saw, the one with the collapsible gate in front of the TV screen, and then it was a TV at Sukhdev uncle’s home. What I remember most about those TVs is the beating that we siblings got on all the way back home when dad came looking for us. It was the carefree world we lived in those days. Getting ready for the future, in an environment where father tried to keep us disciplined as much as possible, which was quite uncertain for the three kids who were to hold the key to many thousands believing in healthy education of children. But that is getting way ahead of time. And ahead of myself. One is yet to jump in the past and try to bring some jewels, some moments that will help one find out if there is anything to be found out. A memory that defines one.
Friday, August 29, 2008
However, coming to the point of this looking back, the samurai. Infact, the lost samurai. It was not lost till I found it. Few days back, as usual I reached office around 8. Straight to canteen to keep my lunch (fruit salad, have been eating healthy lately) in the refrigerator. The door that connects the canteen to the office has a window next to it. As soon as I opened the door I saw the samurai lying on the edge of the window staring at me. The lost samurai was found.
She was quite a hottie. Hot enough for people in the office back in India to call her Sharapova. Since the day she had arrived many guys were trying their luck on her. With time the stories started building. And when my driver told me that he has seen, in the rear view mirror, she and another colleague making out I started believing most of the stories. Within a month of her arrival there were two guys who had supposedly done it. Another lady in the office put it this way “Sab behti Ganga mein haath dho rahe hain” (every one is making the best use of the opportunity).
I have certain masks that I wear in various roles of my life, just like most of us do. In my social life I have maintained a reputation which I guess is of being a simple, nice and maybe not very notorious kind of person. No reasons I guess, it is just the way it is. Although how much of me is that would be hard to say. Still those days even I had a thought or two, in fact more than that, of trying my hands out in this behti Ganga. However, there was a reputation at stake. I hesitated but the devil inside was not going to be satisfied without one attempt.
One evening after managing some courage and practicing what I was going to say many times I dialed her number. After what seemed an agonizingly long time someone picked up the line. The voice was of a male. That too very familiar. “Hello sir. What’s up?” a junior from work answered. After saying something stupid, I don’t even remember what, I hung up. Luckily for me this call was not discussed or I never heard about it but that was end of my attempts in this case.
So where does the samurai comes in. Pardon me for digressing. My keychain is one of the things which do not go with my mood. In other words it is too colorful and full of life unlike me. There are various key chains put together, anywhere between 4-8 rings, 5-15 keys at any given time. The Samurai was a happy member of my key chain family till I lost it. So the girl in discussion on one of her trips to her home brought gifts for everyone in the office and I happened to get a key chain with a cute little ‘kid’ samurai and it said “The Samurai” on top. Good that it said this otherwise no one would have easily assumed the little guy to be a samurai. When I got it my key chain was still building up and along with others the samurai became a part of it.
The ring on the little samurai’s head is broken and it can not be fixed and hence my happy key chain family is one member short. The key chain family has been losing members at a rapid pace in last few months. Thanks to whoever found the samurai and kept it in that window as I am not even sure if I was ever going to realize that the samurai was lost.
My grandfather (father’s father) used to live alone. Not all his life else how could he be grandfather, but most of his old life he lived alone. I really do not know if he deserved to live like that, if he chose to live like that, was he happy, not happy or many other things. All I was told as a child was that he was not good to his kids and wife, and then my father and grandmother left that home. I never bothered to ask much about what why how of everything. Maybe I will ask father someday. One day when he can talk like he used to. So, the old man lived alone and we used to visit him once every year or so (mostly when there was a chance of making some money out of the visit, but that’s a totally different story).
The house where he lived just looked as old and ancient as I remember him to be. The walls, bricks, woods everything surrounding him grew with him and as he moved from walking straight to slightly bent with a walking stick, from walking fast to a slow painful pace, from a man to an old man everything in that place grew with him in the same direction (this direction was finally broken by my father when one day under a deluge of abuses from old man he brought down a portion of that old house and built a slightly better place so that no one was worried about old man getting buried under his own roof) That was the only major change in that place till grandfather died.
We used to call him ‘Bapu ji’. Mostly Bapu when he was not around. Bapu is a word for an old male and Ji is a word of respect. So on our visits to Bapu Ji’s (he is not around anymore but why mess with spirits) place mom will busy herself with the cleaning and washing and removing the year long dirt, dust, cob webs and making that place livable. I think the true family with whom Bapu Ji lived was cleaned out in those few days by mother, to make that place livable for old man for some time and for the displaced members of that peaceful existence (spiders, lizards, wasps, flies and what not) to gather again in the time between then and the next visit by someone who will wipe them out again.
We kids spent time walking around the village, which was quite comparable in size to a small town. Grandfather would take us around to the Gurdawara, where he spent most of his time. He would take us to few families whom he visited sometimes.
Of all the tasks that mother did in the short stay in grandfather’s house, he hated one the most. I think he hated most of the tasks as it was disturbing his kingdom under his nose but the dishwashing was one thing he openly expressed his unhappiness with.
Until the soaps and detergents took over most of the homes in rural areas used ash or sand and few stems of dried grass as scrubber to clean the dishes. It was an excellent way of cleaning dishes and even now when the soaps cant win a battle with grease, the old instruments have a way. According to grandfather just passing the dishes under water should be enough. Why scrub away the dishes uselessly.
I empathize with him now, after all these years. Although he was father to four and grandfather to many more, in that home in that village, in the life he was living, he was a lone man. Lonely I cannot say. Living as a lone bachelor now I understand there is no point in using soap in cleaning dishes every time when I am the one who is going to use these dishes again. That’s not the most hygienic way of doing it but that’s the lazy-efficient-bachelor way of doing it. Whether grandfather was lazy, efficient only he knows I for sure can say he lived a bachelor’s life in his last years.
Monday, August 18, 2008
That summer day what I witnessed under Jogeshwari Bridge clung with me the whole day and for many days after. Why do they give birth when they cannot feed themselves, when they cannot shelter themselves? I was angry at all the poor, at the world, at all of them for the world a poor homeless baby is born into. I was angry for all the babies born on the roads. I wish they can stay in the womb for ever. The wombs where they are not poor, not home less, not without food, not caught in the traffic between the worlds and traffic of this world. I wish they could have the safety of a mother’s womb forever.
It was a day I was going to the Goregaon office. Goregaon office is closer from Powai, where I used to stay, and the office also starts a little late. My work primarily being with the big boss who in any case would take a little longer than others to come, not that he came late but that was his usual as he worked late, I decided to start from home at 9.
Machinder was on time as usual. And one thing which he never grudged me was the FM station which I played. I was the only one in that pool car who had the taste for old Hindi melodies and when alone we played and sometimes even sang with the radio.
The new link road was coming into being at a pace that will put a tortoise to sleep. In fact the World Bank, who is sponsoring the project, must want to sleep over it now. But I guess it is too late for them now, they will have to keep funding this slow monster till it relieves the tired roads of uptown Bombay.
Qualis (7075) was moving on nicely that day. The day was beautiful, as beautiful as a hot summer morning can be in Bombay. The town was slowly coming to life. The cars, taxis, auto-rickshaws, red BST monsters were all struggling for their space on the road with the extended shops, the parking lots carved out of whatever portion of the link road was finished, the municipality dumps waiting for the trucks, which never appeared to relive them of the load they accumulated at a rapid pace, the scavengers, both human and animals, at work which some municipality worker was being paid to do. There was a struggle on every inch of that road. Struggle to make a living on the road and to live on that road, both by the humans and the animals. Struggle by the millions of vehicles in that forever crawling traffic to use the road as a road.
We reached Jogeshwari Bridge without any incident, any incident out of the usual for a Bombay road. Here was waiting us a sea of stuck vehicles. Machinder smiled in a way that conveyed what I already knew, it will be a while before we move.
A traffic crossing on a Bombay road, or for that matter most of Indian cities but more so Bombay, is a small township in its own way. You can buy almost all basic necessities here. You are late for a party and you don’t have time for flowers, use the time you spend on a red light or a traffic jam. Books, all accessories for decorating a vehicle, newspapers, magazines, fruits, groundnuts, peanuts, sweet candies, pens, combs, nail cutters, key chains, guide maps for the city, electronic gadgets smuggled from China. Name a thing and it is there for you on every crossing in Bombay. It is also the business area of the beggars and the eunuchs (they don’t classify themselves as beggars, they are more like snatchers). As if the red light stops are made to be utilized for business. This kind of efficient use of time probably only happens in India and why not we spend a considerable time on the roads waiting for the vehicles to move. The working hours of the businessmen of a crossing get extended with a traffic jam. Traffic jams mean more business for the town that lives on crossing.
It literally is a town. With every inch on the pedestrian walk way occupied by those who come to the golden city chasing dreams, dreams of jobs, work and no hunger. There are small groups huddled together, identifying families and little territories marked by one or two bags of luggage lying around. Everywhere there are toddlers playing at their will, miraculously not getting crushed by the sea of vehicles. The million blowing horns and sounds of vehicles is music to this town. This is where they live. Live with a dream of making it big. Whatever big they aspire to be. Away from their roots, their lands, their own people, and away from their share of clean air, their air. This is where they eat, sleep, make love, give birth and this is where some die still holding on to that dream.
I sometimes wonder where they go in monsoons and especially when Bombay gets four months of it.
Now there was a commotion in the little groups of families under the bridge. Initially I could not make out what was happening. Slowly, the drama unfolded in front of me. I saw the pain on woman’s face and her pregnant belly at the same time and for only that instant. Suddenly, three ladies stood on three sides blocking the view from the traffic and the world with the sarees they were wearing. A small fire was lit and water kettle put on. The cries of the woman in labor were no match for the sound of the traffic. Every driver from every car was blowing their horn as if they were crying in pain, as if they were unknowingly sharing the woman’s labor, as if all of them were going to deliver a gift to this world together. Then I saw the midwife, I assume she was the midwife, lifting the baby up. I saw that tiny face with eye’s closed. In a moment the baby opened the eyes and took in view the world was offering this morning. I think the world scared the baby and the baby started to cry, and as if in answer to the baby's cry, the traffic moved.
It was the day before I had an interview with one of the most sought after company during my college days, it still is. The preparations for the interview were on a full throttle and after getting all the tips about the interview process from all possible sources, after the preparation of all the answers to all the usual questions, I was at the last stage of getting ready. Dress for the interview. A nice looking suit, a tie and black formal shoes would make a good impression. Still tips from one of my seniors could be of use for dress as well. I called Shashank and what he said about the dress for the interview was not what I had expected. According to him I was trying to get into a field job which in fact I was, hence, dress accordingly. Jeans and T-shirt would do just fine. I did not realize why he would advise this but although I could not bring myself to wear jeans and t-shirt for the interview it was neither a suit.
When I got my first coverall during the OFS words of Shashank started making sense.
The days spent in Sainik School flash before my eyes when I step out of my jeans every morning and put on the coveralls. Our school hostel was a dormitory kind of hostel and the public utility bathrooms ensured you no privacy during the times you would wish for.
People would not generally associate such incidents with a professional’s life. Especially, after you have graduated from institutes like IITs. One gets ready for work at home, work at office. Oilfield jobs differ slightly as I realized soon after joining. Every morning you get here and land yourself in the locker room saying hi’s and hello’s while unburdening yourself of the clothes you are wearing and putting on the safety gear.
During the hard years spent in big institutes pursuing bachelors degree most of us who are currently working in oilfield never associate this ritual with the jobs we will be undertaking. After the initial shock we get used to it. It becomes a way of life till you are in the field.
Locker room is where the induction into oilfield really starts.
After 'Lakshmi' and 'Chalti ka naam gadi' were published in Masala Pipeline I got excited about the next issue. I thought of making a double appearance once again. I was not able to give any better shape to SLB Locker Room and hence only submitted 'The Pipe Story'. Guess it was too wierd. It wasn't published either :)
It was on a Saturday evening few weeks back. It was the kind of day when you think a lot. Think about things which matter, think about things which don’t. Think about what is and what it could have been. Think about where you are and where you could have been. Think about what you are doing and what you ought to be doing. It was one of those days. I jumped out of the bed and within 5 minutes was in an auto on way to Juhu beach. Why? Well the only good reason I could have had then was, ‘Its one of those days’. But now after the conversation I think I know the reason.
One thing I learnt very early on Bombay beaches was that if you, at least me, want to enjoy the beach you don’t look down. Let the feet feel the sand and the waves just don’t use your vision to see what the waters look like. I think this little trick of mine makes sure that I enjoy the time I am at the beach. Look at the horizon, the vastness of the sea, the sun and marvel at the peace that the breeze can fill you with. Let the waves wash down the weariness and send the relaxation up the body. But remember the trick. Don’t look down. Else you will see what man had done to this beautiful beast and you will feel heavy at heart, more than you already are on days like this.
It was nearly an hour since I have been walking on the beach and without realizing I had reached a spot where there were hardly any public, but for a few couples. The spot was where the natural met the man-made. On one side was an old wall, with a gate which lead to some junk yard or a very old warehouse by the deserted look it had. And on the other side was the sea with all its fury. Suddenly, weariness came over me and I decided to sit next to the wall for a while and watch the sun go down.
The breeze was as soft as ever. It was mostly silent but for horns blowing at a distance. It was then that I overheard the conversation. It was like two old friends meeting after a long time.
“Yes, it’s been a wonderful life. I have been places and my friend I don’t mean it only as a metaphor. I really have been places. It all started with that first trip to the pipe factory. Everything turned out be so different from what I was expecting.”
“Tell me about all that you have done after we parted. I remember you were not very happy after they thought you were not good enough for the design of the new micro chip and when you were sent to the pipe factory”. This voice sounded as old as former but it wasn’t content, it was the voice of someone not at peace, in a certain way it was my voice on days like these.
There was a silence and then the first voice narrated its story. “It’s been very long but I think after the pipe factory my first trip was to a workover rig in Rajasthan. It was a very short trip; I think they were testing our lot. I remember the vastness of the land, the serene beauty of the country. We were sent back to the factory where it was announced that we are going to an offshore rig. Not all my mates were happy but I had this content feeling that day, I don’t know why, that my life’s journey will be worthwhile.
The first I remember of the sea was its depth. Although it was a while before I actually felt the depth but depth has become the distinct memory. Not all the depths I have been to are of the sea but that’s how I relate to the depths; Sea. We worked on the coasts of India for a long while. What experiences these have been. Initially we will just go a little deep but in the last few years I have been to such depths that I was afraid if I will ever see the sun again.
I made friends. I made friends with the breeze which will cool me when we will just come from the deep visits. I made friends with the sun, with the moons (there were more than one, well I always like to look at the million reflections in the sea). The birds will bring news of the world. The best were the humans. There were so many of them and they were like a family. They took good care of mine and for my part I tried to be good to them.
We traveled a lot. I remember traveling to many seas. On the rigs they say that life of drill pipe is hard but let me assure you its wonderful and amazing and I have thoroughly enjoyed it.
Oh!! Once this crazy man became our driller. You know the guy who drives us in and out of the well and he was real crazy. He will run us in faster than anyone and I would love that. It was with him that I got my only chance to be the first one to go in the well. It was one of the deepest I have ever been. But then on way out something happened and we stopped moving. News came through other pipes that a pipe has broken and that we have lost the hook. All of us in the well were so dejected. We all had heard about casing and production tubing and what fate they had. Staying in a well for ever and every drill pipe dreaded this. After what appeared like eternity news came through the pipes that something has got hold of us and we were again moving up. The cheers down there were the loudest we had ever made. And so I saw the sun once again although I did not get to see my favorite driller again ever.
Well well I have gone on and on like everyone in oilfield does when asked about their jobs and life. You tell me about yourself. You were so happy on hearing that you will be made into a chip.”
There was a long silence. And then the other voice spoke. “I was very happy. Becoming a chip and that too for a super computer was my dream and I indeed was chosen for a super computer.” There was another pause. “After becoming a part of the super computer I don’t have many memories. All I remember before coming here is a lot of heat when the power was on, a cold chill of air conditioning when power was off but the most I remember is stillness and darkness”. Then there was silence.
ANY (the RMC FE!!) is looking at my laptop screen. Seems she has been reading for a while. “What is all this rubbish? Looks like some drill pipe and chip story. What is this all about?”
I do not have any answer to her question. But after that evening on the Juhu beach I have played this conversation over and over in my mind and just thought sharing this conversation with you won’t make me anymore crazier than hearing metal talk.
Saturday, August 16, 2008
Though, I was aware that it is 16th August I was not trying to remember that it is. The day brings with it the memories of the events which were too big for me to comprehend at the time and even now are. Acceptance comes with time. Nothing affected me in the physical sense of world. I am still on the path I would be had there been a different 16th august or for that matter a different 17th august. Force indeed. I saw the last of them one after another. One is beyond everyone the other is beyond self and me.
The force. For the lack of anything better to do was arranging the documents on my PC. Deleting stuff not required. Moving files to correct folders. I like to organize and re-organize things around me to make it better organized. IPOD and PC are the victims every now and then. It was in this process that I ended up finding the Jan 2006 document and then the document of last 16th august. Force has its way.
Sixteenth august came back flashing. The kind of memories which leave one’s eyes wet. And with 16th of august always come the memories of the next day. I lost two dear things in two days, though it wasn’t very clear to me during that period.
Moving on is always easy if one is not carrying the signs of the loss. Just turn from that moment in time and walk away or just walk with the time. Time is the force. And it has its way of carrying you away. Of course it has its way of reminding you that it still is supreme. And apart from the two families involved nobody carried the loss visibly and also not for long. Friends, relatives, lovers; time makes and changes these at its own convenience.
Generally, I try to stay busy with work during few days which I want to pass quickly. It works mostly. But this time it is a weekend and that too in a far away place with not many people around to offer a distraction. Perhaps tomorrow I will go to Gurdwara here. It will be a good change and surely will help pass the day better. Last night while dancing Indian Independence to the tunes of Indian DJ’s I had forgotten the morrow and the day after.
Like everything and everyday this will also pass. Like every time it does. Time, the force will move on. I will move on as well. With just a memory of something lost. Memory which will stay there but which is fading with every foot step of time. As always I wish I could step back in time. Go back and change things. Alas! Even the force is helpless to its own strength. It only learnt to move forward. It never leant to make friends, to fall in love, to make bonds. The mortal weaknesses. It learnt to be immortal, to keep moving without looking back. I need to learn from it. To keep moving forward.
But I am not immortal. I have a past. And the force can not change it.
Ab har kahani ek zindagani lagti hai.”
There is a person in love and there is a person desperately in love and there is a person desperately trying to fall in love. My dear friend misses all these categories. Then there is a person who is someone’s love and there is a person who is some hopeless lover’s hopeless love and there is a person who is hopelessly trying to be someone’s love. Again my dear friend misses all these categories. Still, there is a person who is in the land of cupid and there is a person who has been to the land of cupid and there is a person trying to be in the land of cupid. Very sorry to disappoint you, but my dear friend again misses all these categories. I can’t think of what exactly he fits into but he is trying to be in love while trying not to be himself and trying or rather praying to be someone’s love and trying to open those already open doors of Cupid’s land. …. phew….
Even I am confused……
This is not what I am about to write about. Actually why I wrote that paragraph even I am confused. Something like modern art. After finishing the painting the painter is all confused but when he hear what others interpret that confusion of colors as, he is proud of the confusion which he has created.
I am getting more confused…..
I was trying to kill time as usual when I got a call from Ugly. Few New Year wishes which can take his case a step further in his lady’s court was what he required. I don’t know why he thought I can provide him with what he was looking for but I agreed that I will try to arrange something.
His story is not that complicated. I mean his love story is not that complicated but to keep his love story uncomplicated his story is getting complicated. Its a fairly complicated thing for me to write in an uncomplicated way.
So here I was with all the burden of his love story on my shoulders. These shoulders had already failed one love. Ugly had taken a big risk.
I was not able to think of what to send him so that my reputation and his story could survive, for a while, at least. As always the answer was GOOGLE. After a decent amount of googling I could not shortlist a single message as relevant though I copied two as backup.
Seriously I never had a hint or an idea about what to tell him. I mean what a looser like me can tell in a situation like this. I wish he had asked Hills about this. He must have known million tricks.
I called Hriday for help. The success of Ugly’s love story will depend on a good team effort. Erich Segal would be proud of this ‘Love Story’. Even Hriday had no messages for such a situation. I asked him to write one. He said he will try. I knew he will write a gem.
I wanted to send Ugly more than one message. It’s always good to have choice in such a sensitive matter. I tried to make that non-existent brain work. But e=mc^2 had worked very well so far. There is nothing but space left inside.
So I looked in inbox and selected two messages which could be played with to yield some results. After few tricks I had two very stupid looking messages ready. When it comes to love it is preferred to be original. I wanted to be original for Ugly. Only then could he look original. So I tried a medley of songs and some words thrown here and there and the third message was ready.
If Ugly wasn’t happy with these results than he will have to wait for Hriday. But I guess he found the third attempt worthwhile and perhaps he used it. I am not sure. I just hope that whatever his plan was, it worked.
Hriday is a great person. And his writing (not handwriting) is even better. He has always been good with poems.
Kuch door hamare saath chalo hum dil ki kahani keh denge,
Jo baat tum aankho se samajh na sake hum apni jabani keh denge.
Don’t know why he has not been able to impress that girl for last 10-15 years. You know one or two really good poems and it generally works. But it looks like finally his story is also getting a shape (actually more than a shape).
Hichkiyan batati hain koi leta hai mera naam chupke chupke
Sitare laye hain mere liye jinka payam chupke chupke
Bhari mehfil mein jo meri wajah se tanha hai
Naye saal pe karta hoon unko apna pehla salam chupke chupke.
Hriday is an awesome writer. Wish I could create something like this. I sent this to Ugly after adding some words. Again I don’t know if he used it. I just hope that he did.
I was happy that may be I have helped a heart. But “Bhari mehfil mein jo meri wajah se tanha hai” had pierced my heart or whatever was remaining of it. I just couldn’t get these lines out of my system.
It all looks great. Love. It’s a rose garden. And if you could spend your time in this garden in the spring it is the best place to be. Or better if you can make all the seasons spring it’s a life worth spent. But when autumn comes it’s this rose garden that you want to be away from and it’s the only place where you find yourself all the time. This autumn makes those thorns look lovely. They pierce your heart, your existence all the time. Actually that one moment in the spring of the land of cupid is worth living all the autumns that may follow.
“Bhari mehfil mein jo meri wajah se tanha hai” and it hurts even more if you are the reason for autumn in another persons rose garden.
I know whatever I have written is all mixed up and makes no sense but isn’t it good if things don’t have to make sense all the times.
Perhaps I should stop.
Written Jan 2006...
The time had stopped in this house. The hands on the clocks were turning, the seconds were passing but the time had lost its significance. The walls, air, furniture, the gate knew it wont be the same again and in a way it will be the same forever, just like the way he left everything, the way everything was when he last looked at it. In that place everything had a soul. In that place he was still alive. Moving anything was to create a proof of his not being here, his being dead.
Some journeys are hard to make. It was with great courage, mostly thanks to Nanha, that I went see Dhupar’s parents sometime back. Since the phone call we received about his accident I had known that I will have to face and, if possible, answer these two persons someday. This journey would be among the most difficult ones.
Even if there was a sound outside or inside the sounds didn’t reach us. There was a sense of fear and a kind of shame deep inside me as we stepped in that house. Afraid for everyone there and ashamed, for I knew I will not be honest with these two people I should be.
They had lived their lives it seemed. I could see two persons hung between the real and the world where they still had two sons. They were as old as they could ever be and yet they still seemed the same as they were when they had lunch in the mess of Aravali many years back. Only the link to Aravali was missing.
Over the conversation I tried not to break down and tried not to admit the things which his parents knew were true but wanted to hear from me or from anyone who was there with him in those last moments. They were still trying to justify the unjustifiable. They were trying to give a reason to why their son was gone. Was he drunk? How much? Was he himself responsible for his death? Has he gone before his time was due? Or was he just simple plain unlucky and was destined to live only such a short time? Were we his friends so careless to let him drive if he was that drunk? Didn’t we realize that he should be stopped? Was it his mistake? Was it the other driver’s mistake? Was it a mistake at all? There was anger in the questions and I could feel the anguish and agony and pain in those eyes and hearts.
We recounted the events of that day for them, as if that will make it all seem more real. For my part I tried not to say that yes he was drunk, yes I knew he was drunk, yes it didn’t occurred to me that he will leave us that night, yes it wasn’t the first time I have seen him drunk and then drive (mostly safely), yes it was beyond me to think what was going to happen would be the events that happened. I could not give them the answers they wanted to hear from me, I could not speak.
Life moves on. Things change, events happen, time moves on and the important becomes insignificant and the very insignificant becomes the truth that we live with but for most part of it we keep playing our part as the drama keeps unfolding. However, certain events stay there in the memory as they happened, neither important nor insignificant. The scale and magnitude of life and death hanging at a perfect imbalance and that’s the way we remember what passed in those moments of our lives.
Rushing from office to home to airport, buying the earliest available ticket, jumping into a car full of friends at the other airport, the ride, the mountain peaks, the long trek, the Independence Day, the meeting with friends, the get together, all lead to the moment when the sanity, sensibility, the meaning, plans, aspirations, dreams all lost there meaning forever, for some.
Tera Yaar Bolda and many other numbers bring a smile and a remembrance of the energy which surrounded these songs in his company. The one time lift from Kailash to Insti and he getting red all over on the mention of that name. The so very smart dumb of our dumb charades.
The dead look serene, unaware of the mayhem around, carelessly beautiful. Ugly did. Radiating a kind of calm, trying to sooth the nerves of all the shaken souls around him. After his passing there had been many more daru parties and there will be many more but I some times wonder how many times we friends have raised a glass for him or how many times we will. How many times we will remember what his presence meant or if we ever feel his absence. If we ever look up at the sky and say ‘Hey dude’.
Road goes ever on an on…
Pursuing it with eager feet…
Pursuing it with weary feet…
And whither then I cannot say.
Whither where? Of all of us only Ugly knows.
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